Your mother’s advice to do what you love and success and money will follow is true in any profession, including Capitol Hill.
The best 35 staffers under age 35 say consistently that they love what they do. Success and perhaps some money have followed. They are also smart, they keep their egos in check, and they get along well with others.
The Hill spent several months canvassing Capitol Hill and K Street to find who are regarded as the best 35 aides under 35 years old. Any staffer was eligible except for press secretaries, for obvious conflict-of-interest reasons.
Defining the characteristics that separate professional staffers from amateurs, or the best ones from the good ones, is difficult. Attorneys bill hours and doctors diagnose patients, but a congressional staffer’s output cannot be quantified. We have relied on analyses from political scientists, former lawmakers, lobbyists and aides to pinpoint qualities unique among this elite group.
People who love what they do tend to do it well. Cynics biding their time waiting for a high-paying job on K Street won’t make this list. The examples are endless, but the best staffers believe their jobs make a difference in the world.
Michael Sullivan, an aide to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) on the Senate Commerce Committee, talks endlessly about the importance of the Satellite Home Viewer Act. His idea of fun on the job is roaming the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which he did last month with Ensign and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).
Amy Steinman, the chief vote counter for Majority Whip Roy BluntRoy BluntUnited explains passenger removal to senators Disconnect: Trump, GOP not on same page GOP senator: There will never be full U.S.-Mexico border wall MORE (R-Mo.), said she loves “walking off the floor after we have just won a big vote.”
The best aides, especially those who serve on committees, are intellectually smart and hypereducated. Chris Kang, counsel to Sen. Minority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinLawmakers reintroduce online sales tax bills Democrats exploring lawsuit against Trump Senators warn of 'dangerous' cuts to International Affairs Budget MORE (D-Ill.), graduated from the University of Chicago and Duke University’s law school.
James “Jim” Ho, Kang’s ideological opposite and friend, graduated from Stanford and the University of Chicago’s Law School. Ho joined the Senate Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee after working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and the Justice Department.
Kai Anderson, Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE’s (D-Nev.) deputy chief of staff, earned a doctorate in geology at Stanford.
They’re smart, but the best aides also avoid getting bogged down in details of issues. They can see the “big picture,” a Democratic aide said. “The more ineffective aides … cannot grasp the difference between good policy and good politics.”
Political savvy, the ability to get on well with others, is as crucial as intellect.
Rob Collins, chief of staff to Rep. Eric CantorEric CantorTrump nominates two new DOD officials Brat: New ObamaCare repeal bill has 'significant' changes Overnight Energy: Flint lawmaker pushes EPA for new lead rule MORE (R-Va.), and Brett Loper, House floor manager for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), developed hail-fellow-well-met personalities while bartending at college.
Collins worked at Kokomo’s in Virginia Beach. Loper, a top swimmer at Villanova University, worked at the Wild Onion, a bar outside of Philadelphia, and sold cable television subscriptions door to door.
And the old adage that it’s not what you know but whom you know is also true.
“The best staffers … have depth and breadth in their relationships on the Hill, with the administration and downtown,” said Katherine Lugar, a former Democratic aide turned lobbyist for the National Retail Federation.
Sources also emphasized the need for street smarts and the ability to defuse issues before they become problems.
“In the rapid-fire world of Capitol Hill, it is easy to make mistakes,” said Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation. “Those people who have good instincts to sense a problem around the corner … who work well with folks, are usually very, very smart or have good horse sense and learn to translate that into people they work for” become very good aides.
Jim Thurber, a political scientist at American University and an expert on congressional management, said: “The best staff who do well and last on the Hill have a strong sense of ethics and treat others the way they would like to be treated.”
Moreover, Capitol Hill’s best and brightest keep their egos in check.
“The good ones are not only insightful and hardworking but they also understand that it’s not about them but rather the member or senator for whom they work,” said former Rep. Ken Bentsen (D-Texas), who toiled as a House Appropriations Committee aide for four years in the mid-1980s.
Listen to the best aides talk about their jobs; you quickly see it’s not about them.
Ashley Turton, a senior policy adviser to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, said: “I work for one of the most rewarding members of the House, and her commitment to public policy is a shared value of mine.”
Ho, Cornyn’s lawyer, said, “[Sen. Cornyn] gets involved in all kinds of things, and I try to keep up with him.”
Additionally, the best staffers are skilled in the art of persuasion.
“In Washington, it is not good enough just to be right. You must convince others,” Fitch said. “The ability to communicate ideas in a persuasive way is important, whether you are the president or a junior legislative assistant for a freshman member.”
A House Democratic aide said, “The [best aides] know when not to be a yes person and can take it when their boss gets mad at them for not being a yes person even though all [lawmakers] say they don’t want a yes person.”
Hans Nichols and Josephine Hearn contributed to this report.